Step-Vans and Madams


step van

All you Delicate Flowers out there who swoon when the subject of sex comes up (no play on words intended) time to flip over to another channel. For the rest of you Parkersburgians and 1950’s West Virginians, buckle your seatbelts because we’re talking Mabel Mackey. Well, actually, that makes it sound more exciting than it is. As always, it’s about me, a small, fairly clueless young teenager living in Parkersburg in 1958.

No discussion about sex in Parkersburg during the 1950s would be complete without including the most famous whorehouse madam of that or any other period in Parkersburg. Since I have begun these pages, one of Mabel’s nephews, Roger Mackey, has begun a fascinating Facebook page about his aunt Mabel. I recommend you go on Facebook, search the term The History of Parkersburg WV & its Madam’s and ask Roger if you can join the group.

Roger is a serious amateur historian who has worked hard at hosting a number of Facebook pages about West Virginia, Parkersburg, and the early history of the area. He was recently chosen as a West Virginia “History Hero” by the Wood County Historical and Preservation Society. Roger keeps a fair but firm hand on the sometimes unruly commenters to his pages, and he has thousands of followers who enthusiastically chime in with personal reminiscences that color and enhance Roger’s many ongoing historical topics. He has graciously let me horn in on his pages with announcements of when I put up a new entry of this memoir blog about growing up in West Virginia. All this is a preamble and apology to Roger because I’m about to steal some of his information from his writing about his aunt, the infamous Mabel Mackey. A visit to Roger’s pages will give you the true story of his Aunt Mabel. They can be found here. Thanks, Roger.

If you were a male of any age in Parkersburg in the 1950s you knew the name Mabel Mackey. You might have been too young to know exactly who she was, but simply saying her name would bring on knowing glances, lewd gestures, jokes from the men and giggles from the ladies. As readers of these pages have learned by now, I was a backward lad when it came to sexual matters. If Bobby Huffman hadn’t been a knowledgeable friend to teach me about the ladies, who knows how long I would have remained in the dark about sex. Eventually I must have picked up the meaning of words like Prostitute, Whore, and all the variations describing the sex act and those who participated, especially those who charged money for its many pleasures. But, as we are all aware, knowing the meaning of the word and understanding its possibilities and implications can be two greatly different things. I was probably even more confused than many kids because I was reading novels far above my understanding of the intricacies, both physical and moral, of sex.

I once read a quotation by Mark Twain, who had overheard his wife swearing. He was in the next room when he overheard her, and she wasn’t aware he had done so. He laughed and said to her, “You got the words right, Livy, but you don’t know the tune.” Precisely. I knew the words, I just hadn’t understood precisely what they related to. This is hard to believe in the Internet age when there are no secrets, no act that is not somewhere on your computer screen, in, as we used to say, glorious living color.

If you were a kid, back then, the best you could come up with as far as pornography is concerned, the real mother lode, was to find what I refer to as “roadside porn.” For some reason this was actually fairly common. Usually it meant tattered, rain-soaked copies of men’s sex magazines or on occasion reels of 8mm stag movies, abandoned at the side of the road. How did they get there? Who knows, but if you were lucky enough to find one of these you were careful to hide it from your parents and pass it around amongst your friends. Tattered pages became even more worn. Film was unspooled and held up against the sun, offering glimpses of nakedness and sordid love.

As already noted, just saying the name Mabel Mackey always got a response. The thing is, I don’t ever remember anyone saying something like, “That Mabel Mackey is a bad person.” I’m sure there were plenty of Church Ladies and God Fearing Gentleman who denounced her, if not from the pulpit, from the safety and sanctimoniousness of their living rooms. And I can’t claim to speak of my parent’s friends in this matter, but all I remember is a sort of sly humor when her name was mentioned, and even a mild admiration. The people I knew, at least the adults, seemed to see her as a scrappy businesswoman providing a service and that she didn’t take any crap from anyone, including the police. It was supposedly said by Mabel herself that every time her establishment was raided and the news made the front page of Parkersburg’s several newspapers, (it always made the front page) she experienced a big bump in business.

The aforementioned Roger Mackey has written extensively about how generous his aunt was with the poor, passing out hundred dollar bills to buy kid’s shoes, paying mortgages and hospital bills, and generally being a sort of Robin Hood benefactor, indeed a whore with a heart of gold. I think it’s pretty clear that, as an adult, it would have been far more fun to sit and have a drink with Mabel and listen to her stories than have the finest Sunday dinner with any of Parkersburg’s most saintly citizens.

Did I tell you about the time when as a young, impressionable, teen I was in Mabel’s establishment?

I have talked before about working for several summers at my friend, may he rest in piece, Freddy Klein’s dad’s Mr. Bee potato chip factory. Most of my early days at the factory were spent on the business end of the massive potato chip fryer. Giant trucks would arrive on the loading dock out back and it was all hands on deck as everyone showed up to help unload fifty-pound sacks of potatoes. The sacks were opened and the spuds were dropped in a circular tank where they were spun around and peeled, then it was into the washer and slicer and onto the conveyer belt for their trip into the boiling oil. The hot chips, fresh from their plunge into a vast pool of boiling grease, rolled out, still on on a conveyor belt, under the salter and into the giant metal cans that it was my job to shift when each can was filled. Another responsibility of the “catcher” (me) was to punch a thumb into any of the chips that had formed a grease-filled bubble so the boiling oil would leak out before being bagged. Hot!

The cans we caught the chips in were mostly old and beat up and the lips were sometimes bent out in such a way as to be sharp and dangerous. Often, especially in the beginning, I would cut the inside of my thumbs on this lip and the salt and hot grease would work itself into these cuts. I bore the pain in silence as I was pretty sure none of my fellow workers or anyone in management (that would be Freddy’s dad, he was a one-man management department) wanted to hear that their new little employee was bleeding into the tatey chips. That’s what the product was called, at least by everyone in the back of the operation: Tatey chips. Never potato chips.

Mr. Klein was a good boss. He stayed up front in the office and left the sweaty, salty business of making potato chips to his loyal employees. When I first started, it was thought to be great fun for one of the guys, muscled from years of hauling around giant bags of potatoes, to pick me up and throw me atop the towering stack of tatey chip cans, where I would have to sit, balanced, careful lest the stack tumble beneath me, until someone was kind enough to drag over a ladder, and I could climb down. As you can see, job safety was not really priority number one in those days.

Maybe Mr. Klein recognized my importance as an employee, my growing knowledge of the over-all operation, or maybe someone noticed the blood-stained tatey chips, but eventually I was moved up, or maybe down, to being a helper on the delivery trucks.

The trucks were classic step-vans, the same ubiquitous, boxy white delivery vehicles you see shuttling around every city and town in America. The driver sits in the only seat. The passenger seat is missing, because you’re not supposed to have passengers. So I sat on an upside down tatey chip can, the same kind that cut up my hands. Did I mention that it was Mr. Bee delivery style to drive these babies with both doors wide open, at least during the summer months when I worked? I guess that was so the operation wasn’t slowed down by the driver/delivery guy having to open and close the door. Or maybe it was just so the breeze would cool us down. These were the days before air-conditioning. So while this was good for the company — more efficient — it was bad for the helper (me) who was bouncing and sliding around on an overturned potato chip can, inches away from tumbling out the open door and being smeared across the highway. After awhile I figured out how to ride with my feet jammed up under the dashboard so I was more or less stable. More or less.

There were a half dozen guys that drove all over the surrounding Parkersburg area delivering chips. Some of them ventured far back into the hills to the little, barn-wood, everything-for-sale stores with the coolers full of soda pop and large cheeses on counter-tops sweating under white cloths. These businesses, I soon learned, sold a hell of a lot of tatey chips.

Our main competitor was the Wise potato chip brand. As noted elsewhere, your favorite brand of tatey chip was an either-or proposition, just like much else I’ve been discussing. You were either a Mr. Bee person or a Wise person. Allow me another digression (I know, Dear Reader, that you are muttering under your breath when the hell is he going to get back to the whore house?) The Wise chip was thicker and had a more pronounced potato taste. Mr. Bees were thinner, much thinner, and had a distinctive taste reminiscent of the oil they were cooked in. I have to admit, even though I ate a boatload of Mr. Bees over the years, I didn’t then, nor do I now, think that they were really all that high a quality chip. But back then there was little choice. The words “kettle cooked” had yet to be invented, at least in reference to a deep-fat fried snack product.

Some of the step-van drivers didn’t want a helper. Or at least I was never assigned to them. I usually drew one of two guys. There was a little guy, not little like me but short, who was probably in his early thirties. He had a crew cut (pretty much every male in that age bracket and job description had a crew cut) and wore jeans and a white T-shirt with classic, carefully-rolled short sleeves. We’ll call him Bob. I haven’t the slightest memory of his real name. Bob was very religious, subjecting me to long sermons about Jesus Christ, his personal Lord and Savior, and how a smart fellow like me should be thinking about the salvation of his soul. There were times when I came close to throwing myself out the open door onto the onrushing, unforgiving, black-top highway to spare myself these sermons.

Bob’s other main topic of conversation, which was mostly one-sided in his direction, was his son, who was ten-years-old and addicted to sniffing gasoline from a can, which Bob said, was a popular addiction among children of the time. I had never heard of it, but then, as you have noticed, there was a lot that I had never heard of. Bob would often come home from work and find his son, we’ll call him Bob Jr. slumped over a gas can in the back yard or in the ramshackle shed where the gas was stored. Bob had thought long and hard about this addiction and decided that his son was lacking some nutrient in his system that his body was crying out for and trying to find in the fumes from a gas can. That seemed pretty unlikely to me, but I kept my mouth shut.

Bob also seemed to think I had some sort of knowledge, maybe because I was young, or at least an opinion that would help him understand his son and the situation. He had asked the Lord what the answer might be, but God was strangely silent on the subject of gasoline fume huffing. The only thing that was clear to me was that, (a) Bob Jr. was probably heartily sick of hearing homilies and sermons from Bob Sr. and was trying to escape into the deadly, soporific arms of his friend Mr. Esso, and, (b) if he kept on huffing gasoline fumes he was going to be dead sooner than later one of these fine days. But there was no way that Bob wanted to hear any of that, so I continued to keep my mouth shut, resigned to the fact that whenever I drew helper duties with Bob, I knew it was going to be a long hard day.

The other guy I rode with was an older fellow named, um, Ralph. As always, I don’t have a clue what his name was. When I say older, I mean he was probably in his late forties or early fifties, but at the time that looked pretty old to me. He was clearly an intelligent guy, had a good sense of humor and didn’t take life too seriously. At first I wondered why he hadn’t moved up to a more professional position in the company but after a few trips in the step van with Ralph I figured it out. Here’s the way it worked.

Ralph and I would march into a bar, convenience store, gas station or other business that carried Mr. Bees. Ralph would take out his pad and write while the owner placed his order. We would hit these places once or twice a week and you’d be surprised how many bags of tatey chips these guys would sell. Ralph would tear the order out of the pad and hand it to me, and I would go out to the truck, jump up inside and pull the correct number of bags, stuff them into boxes, carry them into the establishment and secure them onto the racks while Ralph shot the breeze with the counter guy. I got so I could remember the order without the written slips, and I’d have them up on the racks in record time. I also became amazingly proficient at carrying stacked boxes and in my heyday could balance five large boxes of chips and carry them through doorways using a practiced dip that probably looked pretty cool, if anyone actually noticed. But truth be told, Bob was the really amazing box carrier, able to balance seven or even eight full boxes through doorways and down narrow grocery store aisles without ever dropping or damaging a single chip.

But Ralph never carried a box after I was assigned to him and even though we could have cut an hour off our day when I was really busting my ass, after filling the order and hanging the chips Ralph would send me out to the van where I would sit on my can (tatey chip can) waiting. I figured Ralph was inside pitching increased sales to the owner, or maybe trying to get a die-hard conservative storeowner to branch out and start carrying the radical new barbeque style chips along with the regulars. It was when we got to Mabel Mackey’s place that I finally figured out what Ralph was doing, and why I was sent out to the truck to sit on my can.

Mabel’s establishment was located on William’s Court Alley, a small backstreet behind the courthouse in lower downtown Parkersburg. In the early days, Parkersburg was said to be a rough river town with other bordellos some of which research on the Internet tells me were named the Red Onion, Noah’s Ark, Hawk’s Nest and Little Egypt. One has to wonder what the deal was at Noah’s Ark; two girls of every race and creed?

The actual male fantasy didn’t really focus on Mabel herself, but on her stable of girls. In real life, as I read on the Internet and see from pictures on Roger’s site, Mabel was a matronly, hefty lady who favored high-waisted pants, cowboy shirts and cowboy boots. She was interested in collecting muzzle-loading rifles and handing out money to the poor. The girls, it is said, were brought in from out of town and rotated in and out every two weeks so the choices remained fresh. Which sounds like a pretty efficient, high-class operation.

By the time I was in high school, I’d figured out, generally, the mechanics of prostitute/client transactions. As noted in an earlier entry, there were parts in Peyton Place and other novels that outlined the procedures. You went in the house, and ended up in a room with a whore who told you the price of the evening’s activities. Then you took out your “equipment” and your lady would wash you off with a washcloth in a basin of warm water. If someone on the street corner was telling you this tale, at about this point he would always relate the story of the young, inexperienced youth who never got further than the warm wash-water part before discharging his load and disgracing himself forever. I always listened to this part figuring I would probably disgrace myself at lot earlier than that, maybe even when I was getting out of the car.

A time-honored ritual among young men of my time, and even some of the bolder young women, was known as “cruising the alley.” On a Friday or Saturday night you would cram into a pal’s car, usually four or five of you, and drive downtown, circle around the courthouse and come up the alley, slowly, and if you were lucky there would be some young ladies hanging out the second floor windows, haranguing the crowds outside on foot and in cars, daring you to come on in. Here’s the way I remembered the scene. I’m not saying this was right, I’m just saying this is how I remember it.

We’d head up the alley in the car; the scene seems to be bathed in a harsh yellow light. Streetlights? It all has the appearance and feel of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, more The Last Judgment rather than The Garden of Earthly Delights. (Look it up on the Internet to see examples.) In my memory, the alley is crowded with a line of cars creeping slowly along, and throngs of men on foot, shouting and laughing. Are they all drunk? You motor at a walking speed and finally you’re in front of the house where you ride past and your pals hang out the window and shout at the girls, who if you’re lucky, are wearing bras with no shirts and hollering back and waving. Then you’re past the house, you exit the alley and circle around and do it all again.

I hated it, not that I ever said so. It was important if you were a teen of that time, especially if you were only four feet tall, to appear cool, though that term was not yet in popular use. The men milling around in front of the house seemed like beasts to me, braying like asses. Stupid, in all the senses of the word. I didn’t know it then, but I do now, that this was the power of sex, able to addle men’s minds and provoke them into ridiculous acts. I went along with the drive-by a few times, though I don’t think anyone else really thought it was all that much fun either. My friends were all smart, good in school, decent kids, members of the Big Red Band. Of course we were always willing to do something dumb, after all, we were teenagers — remember my earlier entry about getting shot at night in the City Park? But, at least for me, the stumbling spectacle of drunken, bleating men lost interest after you had witnessed it a few times.

Back to the tatey chip truck. After a few days helping Ralph, he seemed to decide that I was an ok guy who could be trusted. One day we loaded up the van and headed out around nine o’clock. We made a few routine grocery store stops and then drove to lower downtown Parkersburg. With growing astonishment I realized we were going to William’s Court Alley. We drove to the head of the alley and parked. We went into a bar, which I now think was probably in the Monroe Hotel. Now I’m asking for a little help from those of you out there who know what I’m talking about. What was this bar? It seemed to me to be right up against Mabel’s “house,” but not in the house. Was there a back door where you could discretely go into Mabel’s without joining the crowd of drunken louts in the alley?

We walked into the bar. Ralph climbed up on a barstool as if he’d parked his can there many times in the past, as he probably had. I just stood in the center of the room, gaping around, awestruck, like the dumb rube that I was. Here I was in a real whorehouse bar, and only God knew what was going to happen. After a bit I realized that it looked like most other roadhouse bars we delivered tatey chips to. In the daylight – not that there was much daylight in any of these places – it, and all the other barrooms, seemed kind of run-down, dusty and a bit forlorn. No neon, no jukebox playing, no crowds, and certainly no painted women in skimpy outfits.

A door behind the bar opened up and a sleepy-looking woman came through, pulling a bathrobe around her. Except in wasn’t a bathrobe, it was a Japanese Kimono of the type called a Happi Coat. (I just looked this up, that’s how it is spelled.) It was the kind of robe that you see whores wearing in the movies. Or at least that’s what they wore in the movies of my day. The woman was young, maybe in her late twenties, and she had short brownish blond hair done in what at the time was called a Pixie cut. And she was really pretty. Really really pretty.

She said hello to Ralph, they obviously knew each other, went behind the bar and poured him a shot of whiskey without him asking for it. Ralph introduced me and she gave me a sunny smile. Instantly, I was in love.

Ralph got out his order pad as the lady rummaged around behind the bar and began ordering bags of chips. It took a few minutes to pull me back into reality: we were here to sell potato chips, not gape at attractive young ladies. I could not bring myself to think of her as a whore. It was ten o’clock, or thereabouts, in the morning, too early for thoughts of whores.

“Want a coke?” she asked me. Sure I did. She filled a glass and slid it across the bar. Ralph finished his shot, and she poured him another. He gave me the page from his order pad, and I went out to the truck.

Dear Reader, you can see how my brain has recorded this event, minute by minute. Each shiny, lapidary moment, bright and clear, luminous even in this beat-up old barroom, seems engraved upon my very soul. Talk about the power of sex.

I hauled the chips back inside, and the beautiful lady took them and stored them behind the bar.

“You want a pickled egg?” she said, gesturing at the big two-gallon jar of Penrose pickled eggs. A pickled egg? Is there anything less sexy than a pickled egg swimming in a suspicious cloudy liquid? I shook my head.

She gave me a long look and a sly smile. “It’ll put lead in your pencil,” she said.

Lead in my pencil! I looked at Ralph. He was laughing at me. I got the impression he’d knocked back a couple of more shots while I was out in the truck getting the bags of tatey chips together. Maybe they even talked about me: yeah, he’s a good kid. Kind of wet behind the ears, though. Yeah, well, he’ll grow out of that.

Lead in my pencil! Was she actually talking about what I thought she was talking about? Was I really standing in this dim barroom having a conversation with a prostitute about MY PENIS? Was this the high point, sexually speaking, of my young life, eclipsing even the pictures of dead naked women in the Carnegie library? Yes! God, yes!

I realized that now both of them were laughing at me. I’m glad it was kind of dark in the barroom as I’m sure I turned beet red. Ralph slapped the bar, shook his head, said goodbye to the pretty girl and we left. Did she give me a little wink as I waved goodby? I like to think so.

After that I realized that Ralph had been having shots in all the bars we stopped at while I was out in the truck, from first thing in the morning to the last delivery of the afternoon. From then on, he no longer hid this day-drinking from me, and I didn’t say anything about it.

The next few weeks I was teamed up with Preacher Bob, a great disappointment to me. I began every day hoping we’d be going back to Williams Court Alley. Then Ralph stopped showing up for work, which was another crushing blow, and it was time for summer band practice so I had to quit my job.

But I had my memories, which I built into elaborate fantasies, which fueled my imagination then and for many years to come.

Which, I have to admit, fuel them even now, on occasion.

Oh, you old biddies who cluck your tongues at Mabel Mackey’s name, don’t talk to me of the evils of prostitution, don’t shake your heads, don’t give me your false piety, your scorn. All I know is what I think happened years ago; all I have is my memory.

Here’s what I know for sure:

I have seen the lady of the house, and she was beautiful.


This is the last entry on this site about my Life In the Big Red Band. In a few days I’ll write one more post about what the future holds for this memoir.

18 thoughts on “Step-Vans and Madams

  1. Sure will miss your blogs, but thanks so much for all of the enjoyable memories. This last one brought me back to 1958-59….. My junior and senior years at PHS. You are right, we all laughed and whispered about Mabel and her girls. Williams Court Alley was a place of mystery to all of us girls as well! I vividly remember piling into my best girlfriend’s ’56 Ford with 4 other friends on a hot summer night and taking that slow ride through the alley. Mabel’s girls didn’t disappoint…..they hung out the windows and waved and said suggestive things to us. We thought we were Sooooooo bad! After all, I was the principal’s daughter, and very seldom did anything so risqué! Fun times…being a teen-anger in Parkersburg in the 1950’s.


  2. Allen, just wanted to say I’ve greatly enjoyed reading about your life growing up in Parkersburg and in the Big Red Band. You have a way of making things really come alive, and I hope this isn’t the end of the story.


  3. Thank you, Allen, for your heartfelt description. I was 10 years old in 1956 and I used to ride with my father, Jimmy Haythorne, in his old green Ford pickup to Russ Fagan’s Harness Shop. We owned horses which meant all saddles, bridles and halters came from Russ Fagan’s. We were able to own horses because Jimmy owned the Lawnsdale Hotel, Bar and Grill. Another renown establishment to visit as a passage into manhood. Sometimes Jimmy would park the truck in the Court Street Alley and I would wait for him. Like you, with the tatey chip can, Jimmy might spend time with Russ and might make a trip into Mabel’s. Usually I would accompany him to the harness shop so I knew if he was planning to visit Mabel’s. As I sat waiting in the truck, some of the girls would come to the windows and wave and blow kisses to me. I would wave back and blow a kiss up toward their windows. Like you, I thought they were beautiful and secretly wanted to grow up and become a “fancy” lady. Thank you for the memories!


  4. I remember walking the alley when I was 13 or so, too young to have a car. Sometimes my cousin and I skipped church and walked Williams Court Alley for this giddiest-of-all early teen experiences.

    I’m taking this moment to apologize to Mable and hers for all the phone calls. I don’t remember what we may have blurted out but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that we said nothing and were satisfied to only hear their voices. After all, these were women who actually did it …our parents certainly didn’t!


    1. Francis, I think you put your finger on the source of all our adolescent (and subsequent?) fascination with sex workers: They really DO IT, when everything else in our environment minimizes or denies sexuality so as to lead a young person to doubt that sexual relations actually exist.


      1. I think we knew that people (other than our parents) were having sex, we just weren’t among them and sometimes it appeared we never would be.


  5. When Jody Murphy broke the Mabel story wide open in the Sentinel a couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to be asked about Mabel and gave my comments about how boys from Washington Jr. High on Seventh Street often walked down to Williams Court Alley at lunch time. I think I had talked with Paul LaPann at the paper about the “underworld” side of Parkersburg, the whorehouses and gambling joints (like Ralph Fetty’s house near Sixth and Ann) I saw during my stint as a local Weiser Cab Company driver around 1970, while I attended PCC. There were several families that ran all the clubs. The girls who worked the whorehouses lived in various places around Parkersburg, including a house on Avery above 13th Street, so I was always getting a call to pick them up or drop them off. Like you say, Allan, these folks were much more interesting to talk with than the normal solid citizen.


    1. I read your comments in that Sentinel article. There’s probably some sort of a book in there about a small town cab driver and the clubs and whores. Hmmm, that’s not a bad idea. Go for it.


  6. Another terrific post! The information and memories are great. My mouth still waters at the thought of Mr. Bee’s potato chips. (The consensus of Internet hits suggests there really wasn’t an apostrophe—but then, most of them say “Mr. Bee”—singular. Like you, I always heard it with an “s.”)

    But besides the substantive stuff, I love the tone of the piece. Writing about sex is always difficult, but doing it in a light-hearted, self-deprecating way is truly hard to pull off.

    Thanks, Allen, for doing the blog. Any chance of expanding it and publishing the result as a freestanding book?


  7. I just now saw your posting, and I enjoyed reading it. I heard of Mabel too, when I was a young girl. My own mother’s name happened to be Mabel too. She helped deliver the newspaper sometimes for my sisters as well as the Grit paper. She spoke of Mable Mackey a few times. I believe she did meet Mabel at one time, and spoke kindly of her. I don’t know the details, but I can remember my mom speaking of the other Mabel.


    1. Avis, since you mention Grit magazine, you must be related to Fred Rader, who delivered the Grit back in the 1960s. I always enjoyed talking with Fred and was sad to hear of his death many years ago.


  8. This is the end? Say it ain’t so! I have enjoyed your memoirs and eagerly looked forward to each one. What a trip back in time! Thanks so much for sharing.


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